It would seem that the subject of mental illness has, at long last, captured the attention of the American public. Why, you may ask, is this so?
Perhaps it is the fact that when mind-boggling mass murders occur in such ordinary towns as Newtown, Conn. or Aurora, Colo., we are inundated with stories about the suspected mental state of the perpetrators.
Although the aforementioned individuals may suffer, or may have suffered, from any number of debilitating mental illnesses, the vast majority of the mentally ill are not violent. Unfortunately, their stories, and their daily struggles merely to survive, rarely make the 6 o’clock news.
If we are to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the oppressive stigma that surrounds the mentally ill in this country, it is important to become better educated about the reality of such conditions.
According to statistics provided by The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 of every 4 adults in America seek medical treatment for some form of mental illness each year. One of every 17 adults is diagnosed with one of the more severe conditions on that spectrum: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. As regards children, it is estimated that 1 in every 10 under the age of 18 is also receiving treatment for a variety of issues related to mental illness.
What should we make of these alarming numbers?
For one thing, it is crystal clear there is a very high probability each of us knows an individual, or a family, who is coping with the complexity of a mental illness diagnosis. Because these individuals often feel the shame and isolation that goes hand in hand with their illness, their silence is deafening. Do you have a spouse, a neighbor or a friend in this situation? I do, and I imagine you do as well.
It is true, and unfortunate, that our attention to mental illness often rides on the back of a sensational story, fueling the fear that all mentally ill people are dangerous. Perpetuating this stigma is hardly equitable to the millions who live quietly with their pain. Movies such as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Short Term 12” are helping to expose the public to the truth about mental illness, but there is still so much more that must be done.
In some ways it just comes down to what is equitable.
Here is an example of what I mean: As a two-time breast cancer survivor, as well as a mental health advocate, I am often struck by the disparity in funding and public awareness between the two.
For instance, at the Colorado NAMI Walk in May 2013, organizers were thrilled that 750 participants registered for their event. Dollars raised from the walk: $130,000.
Compare that to the annual Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure benefiting breast cancer research, a high-profile, well-publicized event held each year in my hometown. On the first Sunday in October 2012, over 40,000 people crammed the streets of downtown Denver, proudly awash in shades of pink, to support this well-deserved and highly visible cause. Their yield: $3,000,000.
Does a person with breast cancer, or any other disease for that matter, deserve more empathy and outpouring of support from the public than a mentally ill individual? I think not.
To right this wrong, I suggest Americans begin by educating themselves on this serious medical issue, and not depend on sensational stories on the nightly news to form their opinions of the mentally ill among us.